previous arrow
next arrow

From Pacifism to National Consciousness

Songs produced in Tin Pan Alley from 1914 to 1918 show a thematic link with the progress of the war that sympathized with the Allied cause despite American neutrality. These songs clearly evoke wide-ranging emotions. Some were sung by the soldiers on the battlefield; and others were more popular at the home front. Propaganda took the form of encouragement. Songs helped recruit new soldiers and sustain their morale while they served. Songs also promoted general patriotism and support for the war; some even masked rather bald-faced advertising ploys. Thus, Tin Pan Alley responded congruently with rising public opinion to join the war. The themes of Tin Pan Alley songs run parallel to the notion of a crusade for democracy that played a crucial role in shaping American national identity. Tin Pan Alley’s specialization in producing songs and the importance of singing worked in close collaboration. This section focuses on war Tin Pan Alley songs as war propaganda at home. The importance of singing in camps and the battlefield will be discussed in a later section.

A vaudeville concert program from Jan. 1914A vaudeville concert program from Jan. 1914When America entered the war in 1917, the Vaudeville Variety Stage was the nation’s chief source of public entertainment. Cinema was still silent, recording was still in its infancy, and public radio broadcasting was still in a fledgling state. As discussed in the previous chapter, songwriters in Tin Pan Alley wanted to get their songs on the vaudeville circuit, hopefully make hits, and drive the demand for sheet music. Sheet music was the publisher’s main source of income during a time when the piano in the parlor and making your own music at home were really the only alternative forms of entertainment to attending a vaudeville show.

Jane Addams in 1915

During the early stages of the war, Pacifism was a common theme in songs. As soon as war broke out in Europe in 1914, influential American entertainers and politicians immediately shifted towards neutrality and on August 4, 1914, Wilson declared that the United States would remain “impartial in thought as well as in action.” Pacifists made sure their voices were heard by the government and pacifist advocates mostly came from women’s groups.1 Jane Addams, a peace activist and feminist, discusses in her 1922 book Peace and Bread in Time of War how the Women’s Peace Party mobilized to advocate a national policy of neutrality at the onset of the war in Europe.

Henry Ford and the Peace Ship

Similarly, Henry Ford embarked on a world tour in 1915 aboard his Peace Ship in order to create publicity and convince the fighting European nations to convene a peace conference and end the conflict.2 Alongside Ford was his personal secretary, Irving Caesar, a pacifist and lyricist who collaborated with George Gershwin on numerous songs including “When the Armies Disband”which is now lost. Ford blamed the moneylenders and ammunition makers as perpetrators and called for immediate peace. He argued that war that “war is murder, the waster of lives and home and lands, and that 'preparedness' has never prevented war.”4

The United States remained neutral for economic and societal reasons, including that many Americans still had considerable family ties to people in the Central Powers. Pacifist songs urged America to sustain its isolation; several of the most popular songs were written from the viewpoints of parents, who asked governments not to take their sons, or begged those sons not to go to war especially from the mother’s perspective. Songs such as “Neutrality Rag,” “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,” and “Don’t Take My Darling Boy Away" published in 1915 illustrate public opinion of pacifism and neutrality. According to historian Byron Farwell, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” was the I didnt raise my boy to be a soldier1most popular song on Tin Pan Alley as late as January 1917.5 To show how strong pacifism was in America, music historian Glenn Watkins points out that the song sold 700,000 copies in 1915 and was recorded along with Irving Berlin’s “Stay Down Here Where You Belong” in 1916.6 President Wilson won re-election campaigning on the pacifist slogan, “He kept us out of war” as late as 1916. However, enthusiasm for pacifist tunes began to wane after the sinking of the Lusitania in April 1915 and the Victor Talking Machine Company withdrew pacifist songs in April 1917 when the United States entered the war.

As always, songwriters were ready to write about anything that came their way and in 1914, W.R. Williams wroteWe stand for peace “We Stand for Peace, the Others War.” Wilson’s portrait graces the cover and in bold letters, a note for the performer is on the first page declaring to the performer that “This ‘Peace Poem’ was inspired by President Wilson’s appeal to Americans to remain neutral in thought and deed.” It is interesting that although this piece advocates for world peace, the piece is to be played “Tempo de Marcia,” thus carrying martial undertones.8 Other neutrality songs started to appear in the market such as “We are all Americans” and notably “We Take Our Hats Off to You, Mr. Wilson.” In the latter song, Wilson is portrayed as “the world’s big mediator” as the lyrics attests. With its strong rhythmic march-like gestures, the piece conveys strength but juxtaposed against lyrics of diplomacy. Placed in the context of the household, the position assigned to Wilson in this song is similar to a resolute father who reassures his family to be calm and that everything will work out fine.9 Call it coincidence or strategic marketing, these songs targeted the white middle-class American urban market who had the essential ingredients for appreciating the song’s message, namely: a piano at home and the social and ethnic group that dominated American society. As Craig Roell shows in his book and as discussed in a previous section, by 1915 majority of middle-class families had a piano in their homes.10 So where else could these pieces be performed most, non other than the personal environment of the home of the people who bought the sheet music. This private musical experience allowed family and friends to have a conversation about salient issues while singing around the piano. The song, “We Take Our Hats Off to You, Mr. Wilson” that depicts Wilson as a father figure protecting his family is then easily relatable to families across the nation. Tin Pan Alley songwriters packed messages in traditional, plain, and succinct language that anyone could understand.11 Wilson kept this neutrality position and campaigned in 1916 with the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” To endorse neutrality and attribute it to Wilson, “Go Right Along, Mr. Wilson” was composed in 1915. However, the lyrics also asked Americans to be ready to sacrifice if called upon to defend the country.

Whenever there is a plea for peace in early World War I sheet music, the lyrics oftentimes center on the Mother figure as a symbol of peace and wholesomeness.12 Putting these pieces in context, it is interesting to consider what kind of musical conversations would there have been if these pieces were composed for the women playing the piano at home with family and friends. While Wilson embodied the father personality as a proactive figure, the mother personality emphasized the importance of peace by using the power of womanhood to plea for peace while other songs continue to use the fragility of womanhood as a vehicle to call for peace. Songs such as “The Heart of the World” and “Lay Down Your Arms” continue the traditional depiction of the grieving mother while contemporary 1915 songs, “When Our Mothers Rule the World” and “Don’t Don't take away my darling boyTake My Darling Boy Away!” transform the grieving mother into a heroic and pivotal figure in anti-war messages. These conflicting viewpoints was further complicated by the rise of a more active and aggressive form of pacifism. By far, the song most representative of this movement was “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be Soldier.” No longer is this a pleading song but a declaration that national victory is not joyous if the home is empty. Likewise, the mother speaks directly to the government saying that it is an offense to her and her son that the military “dares to place a musket on his shoulder, To shoot some other mother’s darling boy.” The song achieved great popularity and was published repeatedly in various national newspapers.13 Thus, there are overlapping themes in portraying women. Perhaps running in parallel to the rise of feminism, songs portraying women actually wielding real power to stop conflict started to appear.14 Aside from being portrayed as a Mother figure, women were also cast as the dutiful home-working woman and as the faithful sweetheart waiting at homeI'll wed the girl I left behind.15 These were the ideal feminine stereotypes in America at that time. Examples of these songs include “Tulip and Rose,”16 “Send Me a Curl,” and “I’ll Wed the Girl I Left Behind.” While these types of songs would continue to appear even after America had joined the war, there would soon be a noticeably decrease in production of these songs in favor of portraying women as actively serving at the home front and even on the frontlines.17

A topic often not discussed is how Tin Pan Alley seized upon the idea of depicting children or raising children for purposes of propaganda. More importantly, these songs were entirely produced, sold, and performed by adults and revealed nothing about how children actually responded to the war but rather how adults wanted children to fit into American society in the midst of conflict. Just like their adult counterparts, boys were depicted as young soldiers as early as 1915 with the release of “Daddy, I Want To Go” and with the declaration: "I’m tired of playing soldier with the boys, Whose only pleasure is to play with toys.” Similarly, girls were depicted as the sweet prayerful angels of the family. As discussed before, women were expected to be dutiful and faithful at home and the depiction of young girls at this time was no different.

During this pacifist time in America from August 1914 to 1917, the country was increasingly getting frustrated with the British blockade of Germany. Britain seized German merchant vessels headed towards neutral ports and refused to trade with American firms suspected of having ties with the Central Powers. American relations with Germany were souring as well. American neutral merchant ships headed to Britain were repeatedly harassed and sunk by German submarines, but the first major crack in American-German relations was just about to come.

Screen Shot 2019 03 13 at 4.09.45 AMThe sinking of the LusitaniaIn May 1915, a German submarine fired a torpedo and sunk the British ocean liner Lusitania. Among the dead were 128 U.S. citizens.18 People began to wonder if Germany’s provocative action would prompt Wilson’s administration to end neutrality, but many Americans were also happy to see neutral America increasing its profits by selling arms to both Allied and Central Powers. After the Lusitania was sunk, people did not waste time to voice their opinions. The Boston Committee on Public Safety circulated a poster depicting a mother and childScreen Shot 2019 03 13 at 4.13.29 AM slowly sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor with the catchword “Enlist.” This poster created a strong impact among pro-war activists and the poster was reused during World War II.19

In 1916, the theme of overlapping ideas continued to prevail throughout the nation. Woodrow Wilson was campaigning for reelection with the neutrality slogan “He Kept Us Out of War” and Robert Mortimer’s song “Stonewall Wilson” Stonewall Wilsonshows the president as a strong commander in military uniform leading soldiers but the lyrics praises Wilson for keeping America out of the war. Perhaps the mixed political messages show that America and its president were strong enough to win in war, but only if it was absolutely necessary.

1916 also saw the rise of the preparedness movement, a strong opinion opposing pacifists and arguing that America will have to face serious consequences if it did not enter the war. This national consciousness movement is summed up by Frederick Wheeler’s recording of “Wake Up America.” Wheeler cries out “Let’s get ready to answer duty’s call...America is ready!” This song clearly demonstrated the apparent need to face reality and send troops to Europe. Other songs included “Old Glory, a Song of Preparedness” and “On toOld Glory Plattsburg.”20 While Wilson campaigned on a neutrality platform, former president Theodore Roosevelt along with other Republican progressives argued since the outbreak of the war in 1914 that the resolution to the European war could only come through a display of American military strength. Although there was no formal declaration of war yet, there were already American groups who fought under the French flag. In 1916, young and daring American pilots called the “Lafayette Escadrille” flew several missions to combat German aces in the sky. They too created their own song.21 With the loss of innocent American civilian lives in the Lusitania bombing, the message of the preparedness movement resounded even more. In response, pacifists denounced the preparedness movement as a group of wealthy citizens trying to profit out of the war by sending troops to Europe leading a journalist to note that these wealthy Americans “looked down with undisguised contempt upon the masses.”22 As with any movement, this response came with song. “Prepare the Eagle to Protect the Dove” subtitled “That’s the Battle Cry of Peace” which encapsulated the transformed idea of pacifism at the wake of the Lusitania bombing. The rise of the preparedness movement arguing that only good military training, to defend the homeland combined with the best weapons, would be the way to keep peace and prevent sending troops to Europe.23 Going back to the ideas of mother and father figure introduced earlier, Gier notes that the shift in political and public opinion towards preparedness is also seen in the representation of gender in sheet music. While the mother initially pleaded the government for peace and to not take away boys and fathers away from the family, songs beginning from 1915 started to portray mother as convinced as father that men were to Screen Shot 2019 03 13 at 4.22.14 AMserve in the military.24 “I’ll be Proud to Be the Mother of a Soldier” published in 1915 is an example of this shifting gender representation as well as the 1916 song “She is Going to Raise Her Boy to Be a Soldier.” Similarly, the father’s call for preparation became stronger than before. The preparedness movement that was kept on the sidelines now took the stage front and center. On November 7, 1916, Wilson won both the electoral and popular votes with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War” and was sworn in as president a second time on March 4, 1917. Wilson was about to embark on a difficult year and would be forced to break his campaign promise by asking Congress less than a month later to declare war on Germany on April 2, 1917.Screen Shot 2019 03 13 at 4.24.26 AMThe Zimmerman Telegram


While the Lusitania incident already swept the nation sensationally, the Zimmerman Telegram sent by the German Foreign Office to Mexico in January 1917 was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The telegram proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico in the event America decided to declare war on Germany with the promise that Germany would help Mexico recover Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, lost territories from the Mexican-American War. Intercepted by British intelligence, the telegram brought about doubts as to its authenticity, but it did not take long before Arthur Zimmerman, author of the telegram, went public and confirmed its authenticity on March 3, 1917, a day before Wilson’s inauguration.Screen Shot 2019 03 13 at 4.28.44 AMPresident Wilson asks Congress to declare war

Following Wilson’s request on April 2 to declare war justifying it as “The world must be made safe for democracy,” Congress officially declared war on Germany on April 6. The following day, the song “A Call to Arms” subtitled “The American Marseillaise” was published. Quick to respond to the government’s call to war, this song marked the turning point for America from pacifism to national consciousness. Pacifism was no longer the tune of the day and the country had to mobilize quickly to equip its unprepared military.

Examining the songs from America’s pacifist era is the best way to hear what kind of conversations people were having at home before the war and especially how they viewed a foreign war. This was something Americans did not have any first-hand contact with. America was about to experience the devastating effects of world war.




1. Gier, Singing, Soldiering, and Sheet music, p.3; Gier argues that since the pacifism movement was largely driven by women, the public saw this movement cement a link between women and pacifism. Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt actively opposed these women’s groups as “hysterical pacifists” and “sissies.”
2. Watts, p. 228.
3. Watkins, p.246; According to Howard Pollack’s book George Gershwin: His Life and Work, Gershwin seemed to share Caesar’s ideals of pacifism. Pollack also discusses how Caesar remembered that he wrote “When the Armies Disband” with Gershwin and Alfred Bryan, the lyricist of the pacifist song of 1915 “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” and Caesar sang it for Henry Ford while aboard the Peace Ship. Pollack, p.244
4. Published August 22, 1915 in the Detroit Free Press                                                                                                                                                                                                      5. Farwell, p. 50
6. Watkins, p.249
7. Watkins, p.249
8. Gier argues that the lyrics of this song reflect the “confidence and hopefulness in Americans, who will face the war with their moral fortitude.” Gier, Singing, Soldiering, and Sheet music, p.5. While the song may be pacifist, the underlying march rhythm may romanticize the new European war. At this time, no one knew about the devastating effects that were about to come.; In another article, “Masculinity, war and song in America,” Gier argues that “rhythmic markers are especially effective in shaping the discourse of these songs.” In Popular Song in the First World War: An International Perspective, p.123; Christiana Gier provides numerous in-depth musical analyses for the selections discussed in this article. For more information on formal and harmonic analysis on these pieces, refer to her book Singing, Soldiering, and Sheet Music in America during the First World War.
9. In this piece, Gier argues that the lyrics convey that a leader is in charge, someone who has the capacity to fight but chooses rather to use his power to mediate between the warring countries. Gier also offers interesting views on the intersections of gender and music in the context of World War I sheet music. In both her book and her article, “War, Anxiety, and Hope in American Sheet Music, 1914-1917,” Gier presents the tropes of the resolute Father and weeping Mother in the neutrality period. At the same time, there are other lyrics that reveal social tensions between classes. Sometime later, as the preparedness movement was gaining momentum and the country ultimately entered the war, both Father and Mother symbols become militant and these parental symbols are united in the nation’s agenda to rally young men to the Western front. Gier, Singing, Soldiering, and Sheet Music in America during the First World War, p. 3 and “War, Anxiety, and Hope in American Sheet Music, 1914-1917,” p.2;
10. Roell, p.70
11. Nicholas Tawa points out that in Tin Pan Alley song tradition, “language is kept plain, graphic, relevant and concrete. Abstract and unusual references are avoided.” Tawa, p.95  12. Gier, Singing, Soldiering, and Sheet Music in America during the First World War, p.6; Christina Gier has published articles with detailed analyses of gender in popular sheet music published during World War I. For more information on this topic, refer to her article “Gender, Politics, and the Fighting Soldier’s Song in America during World War I” and her book, Singing, Soldiering, and Sheet Music in America during the First World War; Zeiger notes that women were generally staunch pacifists and followed the ideology of “pacifist maternalism – the idea that women have an innate affinity for peace due to their capacity for giving life.” Zeiger, “She Didn’t Raise Her Boy to be a Slacker: Motherhood, Conscription, and the Culture of the First World War” p.10
13. However, as expected, pro-war parodies immediately responded with songs like “My Mother Raised Her Boy to Be a Soldier” and “I’m Going to Raise My Boy to be a Soldier (and a Credit to the U.S.A.)”
14.It is important to note that this was a time before women could vote.
15. Wells, p.137
16. “Tulip and Rose” was included in the first publication of the songbook Songs of the Soldiers and Sailors (1917) as song 35. However, it was removed in the second publication of the song book the following year. It is interesting to consider what led the song to be removed. Given the sentimental lyrics of this piece, one may argue that “Tulip and Rose” was removed to make way for more pro-war songs.
17. In her article “From tulips and curls to donuts and jazz,” Wells argues that when new militarized opportunities became available to women as part of the war effort, songs written for and by women increasingly became more actively supportive towards the soldiers. Women did not waste time to volunteer, entertain, or join the reserve military forces. Even before America declared war, the Naval Reserve Force opened its doors to women on March 1917 and already had 200 “yeomanettes” by the next month.
18. Zieger, p.20
19. Gier suggests that this poster carries undertones of Marian symbolism that greatly resounded especially with Bostonians because of the city’s major Catholic population. Gier, Singing, Soldiering, and Sheet Music in America during the First World War, p. 11
20. Gier argues that the lyrics to “On to Plattsburgh” were to emphasize what soldier’s duty was to his country. The song also imagined what training camps would look like even though it would take a year later for the government to actually set up training camps. Gier Singing, Soldiering, p. 17;
21. Watkins, p. 253
22. “Shall Militarism Devour the Farm?” Commoner 16 (Jan 1916): 3                                                                                                                                                                              23. While pacifism before 1915 was strongly anti-war and anti-preparedness, pacifism after 1915 advocated good military training, but still keeping a no boots on the ground policy to keep peace. Wilson, a strong pacifist, even requested Congress to pass the Naval Act of 1916 (August 1916) in order to bolster America’s naval power capable of matching any foreign rival.; While Germany had signed the Sussex pledge on May 4, 1916, promising not to attack passenger and merchant vessels, Germany still continued to sink U.S. boats selling supplies to Britain and France in an attempt to defeat the Allied Forces before the U.S. could enter the war. The U.S. was politically neutral but by 1916 the country had taken sides economically. The new form of pacifism in 1916 was a display of capability rather than a show of force.                                                                                                   24. Gier, Singing and Soldiering, p. 22